Robert Bruinsma explores how the Edmonton Christian School became a part of the public board.
In August 1947 the annual meeting of the Christian School Society of Edmonton, Alberta, unanimously passed a motion to start a Christian school in the basement of First Christian Reformed Church. After more than a year of persistent lobbying, the (renamed) Edmonton Society for Christian Education (ESCE) was officially authorized by the Alberta government “to operate a school for grades 1-6.” Central Christian school opened in September 1949, with 20 pupils in grades 1-4 housed in a small classroom in the church basement, followed in rapid succession by East Edmonton Christian in 1953, and West Edmonton Christian in 1955. In 1965, a high school (grades 10-12) was built to offer a complete a K-12 Christian education.
This was a time of unprecedented immigration of Dutch Calvinists to Canada after WWII. They were accustomed to having their own Christian schools, fully funded by the state. Even though funding was not available in Canada, they felt their faith obligated them to have their children taught in schools that supported this commitment.
Struggles and breakthroughs
As was the case with all Christian schools, during these formative years and long after, parents struggled with the costs of building and maintaining schools, and paying for instruction. A tremendous volunteer community effort was required to operate the Edmonton Christian schools which, by 1990, served over 1,000 students. However, the Board of the ESCE constantly faced budget shortfalls, despite having a considerable amount of government funding.
Financial support from the provincial government did not come without a struggle. Almost as soon as the schools were built, members of the supporting community began to lobby their government MLAs for funding. These initial efforts met little success. It was difficult for politicians to understand why the existing dual school system (Public [Protestant] and Catholic) was not meeting parental choice in education. However, the strong belief of these Dutch Calvinist Canadians was that education was primarily a parental responsibility and since children spend a large portion of their formative years in compulsory schooling, this schooling should be infused with Christian principles, not only in formal exercises like prayer and Bible-reading.
Strong lobbying efforts for financial support as a public justice issue were spearheaded by the ESCE school community. A breakthrough came in 1967, when the Social Credit government passed a bill to provide funding for private schools for the first time. The initial grant provided only $100 per pupil.
In 1983, Mr. Gary Duthler was hired as the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges of Alberta (AISCA), based in Edmonton. Between 1983 and 1986, AISCA’s membership grew to include more than 40 different independent school groups from throughout the province. Many, though not all, were faith-based. Under Duthler’s leadership the independent school movement engaged in effective campaigns for “Choices for Children,” and lobbied all provincial political parties relentlessly. They used an argument that government needs to be fair and even-handed in its treatment (including economic treatment) of all legal educational options that serve the public good. Eventually this argument began to gain political traction. Funding of educational alternatives in Alberta increased to the point that, today, accredited independent schools in the Province of Alberta receive approximately 45 percent of what it costs to educate a student in the province’s public and separate schools.
A new vision
Despite the considerable increase in government support, costs were increasing faster than the ESCE could cover. An additional school in northeast Edmonton had been built, and both the West school and the high school had undergone major building expansions. In the mid 1990s, the ESCE Board struggled to find new sources of revenue and to broaden the appeal of its schools beyond its primarily Christian Reformed heritage community.
In 1997 Dr. John Hull, a Professor of Education at The King’s University College, became the Chair of the ESCE. According to Hull, the main issues facing the Society and its schools were: the high tuition, low teachers’ salaries and a diminished commitment to the ESCE vision and mission. It wasn’t that the Society did not have a carefully articulated vision and mission statement; it seemed not to resonate with its supporting membership. A committee chaired by Hull prepared a comprehensive 6-page document including this overarching vision statement: Believing Jesus is Lord over all of life, Edmonton Christian School educates students for joyful and responsible service to God and society. The challenge now was to energize the entire community around this new articulation of this vision and mission.
A precedent is set
Shortly after the new vision/mission statement was adopted, Mr. Hans VanGinhoven, then-Superintendent of the three Edmonton Christian schools, made an announcement at a Board meeting that would subsequently change the course of the ESCE forever. VanGinhoven had learned that Strathcona Christian Academy (SCA), which operated a K-12 independent school system in the neighbouring community of Sherwood Park, had signed an agreement with the Elk Island Public School Division to become a fully funded, faith-based public school within that school district. The ESCE Board established a committee to investigate similar possibilities.
The committee, consisting of John Hull, Ben Elzen and Dr. Alyce Oosterhuis, asked VanGinhoven to approach the Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) to explore possibilities. To his surprise, the EPS Superintendent, Dr. Emery Dosdall, was open to this possibility and appointed two of his staff members, Ms. Faye Parker and Ms. Gloria Chalmers, to begin discussions with the ESCE Board.
EPSB had an already established reputation as a school board very much in favour of parental choice in programming. Under a previous superintendent, it had developed school-based budgeting, which gave individual school principals a remarkable amount of control over programming, and it had opened school boundaries so that Edmonton parents could enrol their children in any public school of their choosing, subject to available space and the school’s ability to accommodate students living within its catchment area. In 1996 the Christian Logos Society had negotiated the establishment of the Logos program in several EPS classrooms. Superintendent Dosdall was eager to increase the reputation of EPS as a district that championed choice.
Suspicion and concerns
The ESCE Board and its negotiating committee were overwhelmed by and somewhat suspicious of the warm welcome and encouragement it received from EPS. There were concerns that this was a power grab by which EPS simply wanted the provincial money that would come to it from the ECS schools. (Dosdall was amused by this, mentioning that 750 students constituted only a drop in the bucket for a system serving over 80,000 students.) The greatest concern was staffing. Clearly, the EPS superintendent would not relinquish control over appointing principals for the schools for which he was responsible. Also, the ESCE teachers would be required to become EPS employees and members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). There were other issues related to building ownership, the role of ESCE Board vis-à-vis the EPS Board, etc. But the chief concern centred on the question of how the Christian vision and mission of the ESCE schools could be not just maintained, but nurtured, in a massive secular school system like the Edmonton Public Schools.
True alternative solutions
Ben Elzen then asked, “Why not ask EPS whether it would be prepared to incorporate the recently developed ESCE vision and mission statement as an integral part of any agreement with EPS?” To the ESCE Board’s amazement, Faye Parker and Gloria Chalmers responded that this was not a problem since, as Parker said, “There’s no point in having alternative programs of choice if they are not true alternatives.” Dosdall’s opinion echoed this, stating that “the public” is not a uniform monolith. Within “the public,” there are different visions for the kind of schooling parents want, and public schools ought to accommodate those wishes within the parameters of the provincial School Act and the regulations of the Ministry of Education. The ESCE negotiating committee felt that the willingness was an amazing development and took it as a sign to continue discussions.
Meetings and decisions
As Faye Parker stated, “The key to successful negotiations between two parties is always trust. Without trust and respect between negotiating parties, there can never be a positive outcome.” As the individuals in the negotiation parties came to know each other and were frank and open with each other, the pace of negotiations rapidly increased.
In the fall of 1998, the ESCE called a meeting of its supporting community to discuss the possibility of ECS schools becoming public schools offering alternative Christian programs. John Hull estimates that between 800–900 members showed up for the meeting. Fears about the possible long-term consequences of a merger were expressed but, in the end, the assembled crowd voted in favour of continuing the discussions.
Many more meetings ensued. The ESCE was assured that EPS understood that principal and teacher selection were key to maintaining the schools’ Christian vision and mission. Teacher pensions were also a major issue, but a deal was reached. School leasing arrangements were worked out and a host of other details were negotiated in good faith.
Finally, in late May 1999, the decisive meeting with the ESCE community was held in the gymnasium of the West Edmonton Christian School. Again, a large crowd of over 800 members attended. John Hull opened the meeting with a powerful devotion. Gary Duthler spoke first, saying he felt betrayed by “his own people.” He argued that, in principle, a Christian school should not have to obtain funding by subsuming itself under the umbrella of a secular organization, no matter how benevolent that organization appeared. He urged the membership to vote against approving the negotiated proposal to the Edmonton Public School Board for final ratification. Many other voices were heard and eventually, the vote was called for. The motion to proceed was carried with a 75 percent majority.
The final approval
A month later the Board of Edmonton Public Schools met to discuss the proposal for Edmonton Public to enter an agreement with the ESCE. Faye Parker spoke at length about the process that had been undertaken and answered many questions posed by some sceptical public board members. Finally, the EPS board chair called for the question. But, before the vote could be taken, there was a great flash of lightning, followed by a tremendous thunderclap. The lights in the room flickered, went out and then came back on. Everyone laughed. The chair called for the question again and the motion passed. The ESCE negotiating team and the ESCE supporters who packed the gallery are, to this day, convinced that the atmospheric pyrotechnics were a divine signal.
The aftermath and assessment
After the agreement was enacted, school fees dropped dramatically (from tuition of over $5,000 per student to $1,200 per student with a maximum of $2,700 for three or more children). Teachers’ salaries increased by about 30 percent and enrolment grew steadily, and is presently at about 1,500 students. A brand new K-9 school has been built in northeast Edmonton on a school site provided by EPS. The high school has been modernized, and plans are underway for a major rebuild of West Edmonton Christian School. The system is flourishing, accommodating children from 16 different denominations and many ethnic groups.
It’s been more than 18 years since the agreement with the Edmonton Public School Board and the ESCE. I spoke with many people who were involved. Some are retired, some are still working or directly involved with the ESCE, others have moved on to other careers. I asked each of them for their assessment of the merger between Edmonton Public Schools and the schools of the ESCE. Here, in conclusion, are some representative comments.
Dr. John Hull, recently retired Dean of Education at the King’s University: "Looking back, it was the right thing to do. It forced us as Board and community to articulate more clearly what our vision of integral Christian education is all about. It also made our schools more visible in the wider Edmonton community and made it possible for many more families to access Christian education."
Peter Buisman, current Executive Director of the ESCE and a former teacher and principal at Edmonton Christian High School: "The relationship with Edmonton Public has been phenomenal. In addition to sharpening our own sense of our vision and mission, it has freed up money to remunerate our teachers more fairly, and also to provide money for Christian curriculum development in ways that would have been impossible had we stayed on our own."
Gary Duthler, former Executive Director of AISCA, now retired: "Although I still feel that, in principle, an independent school meeting certain criteria should be able to be fully recognized and funded, the relationship between ECS and EPS has been a blessing to both and to Christian schooling in the province in general."
Hans VanGinhoven, former Superintendent of Edmonton Christian Schools and part of the ESCE negotiating team, currently the Principal of Strathcona Public High School in Edmonton: "The model of diversity that Edmonton Public adopted was brilliant and has been copied all over the province. It has resulted in ECS becoming a transformative Christian witness throughout the public school district."
Brian Doornenbal, teacher at ECS since 1986 and currently employed as a half time Storyteller for the ESCE and its schools edmchristian.wordpress.com: "The teachers of ECS were fully consulted at every stage of the negotiating process. Since ECS have become a part of EPS, the latter have benefited from the leadership of our teachers. In conjunction with the Prairie Center for Christian Education we have become leaders in Christian Curriculum Development in the province and beyond."